Homeless vs Experiencing Homelessness: Why Vocabulary Matters


Homelessness is a complicated subject.  The way we talk about it matters. 

The word “homeless” comes with a whole armful of negative stereotypes, assumptions, and accusations. 

“You’re just lazy.”

“You must be an addict.” 

“Are you too proud to ask for help?” 

However, what many people don’t understand is that homelessness is much more complicated than that— and labeling someone as “homeless” can hurt more than it helps the situation.  

Instead, many social services and agencies have begun recognizing these individuals as, “people experiencing homelessness.” 

What is people-first language?

People-first language is defined as language that puts a person before a diagnosis. 

The movement began with an effort to re-think the way we address people with disabilities— for example, instead of labeling someone as “crippled” or “blind,” organizations began using terms like, “person with a disability” or “person who is visually impaired.” 

The Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities People explains that, although people with disabilities have historically been pitied, feared or ignored, “People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people. Their contributions enrich our communities and society as they live, work and share their lives.” The vocabulary we use should reflect this. 

The same idea goes for describing people who have nowhere to call “home.” 

For example, by describing someone as “experiencing homelessness” rather than simply “homeless,” you are describing something a person is going through rather than defining them by it. This humanizes homelessness a little more and gives those experiencing it the dignity they deserve. 

humanizing homelessness

“The words we use to describe people powerfully affect our attitudes and assumptions about them. As advocates for people with disabilities have learned, labels generate strong emotional reactions that can create barriers to understanding and reinforce stereotypes,” said Jennifer L. Rich, Director of Communications for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

What are some stereotypes? Individual stories? 

According to one study by The National Alliance to End Homelessness, over 25,000 Texans experience homelessness every night. That’s approximately 9 out of every 10,000. 

This study also showed that most people experiencing homelessness are individuals (67 percent), while the remainder (33 percent) are people in families with children. 

All that to say— each person who is going through their own individual story. 

Lydia Montagnese, the IT Director for Simply the Basics, explains why homelessness can become a perpetual cycle.

“Not being able to wash your hair, or clean yourself up during your menstrual cycle, or put socks on to cover your worn, tired, maybe even cut up or infected feet is an instant recipe for failure,” she said in a recent article. “Also, living outside makes people susceptible to all kinds of harmful bacterial diseases and infections…the list goes on, but it is a reality for many people who used to have jobs and homes, and families face after they have somehow lost everything.”

homeless woman

A first step

Now, we understand that language can’t change everything. Saying that someone is experiencing homelessness won’t feed their family or put a roof over their heads. 

However, we believe that using people-first language is an important step towards changing stereotypes and helping those in need.

“I know that talking or writing about an “individual experiencing homelessness” is structurally awkward,” said Rich, “but it’s so important for us to do it. To end homelessness in America, we need everyone in America to believe—like we do—that people just need some help to fix a problem that they have. And isn’t that who we all are? People who sometimes need some help to fix a problem that we have?” 

A few stories…

We believe that listening to the stories of others is the best way to feel more empathy for an issue— which is why we love giving a platform to real people who have overcome real obstacles. 

“Stories change lives. We get to be examples, and that’s a privilege,” said Nina (pictured below), one woman we had the privilege of working with at the Fairweather Family Lodge

Nina overcoming homelessness

To read a few stories for yourself, check out Nina’s story, Will’s story, Javier’s story, and more. 

How can I help?

helping the homeless

Over the last 15 years, the Fairweather Family Lodge program has served over 250 families, or close to 800 individuals. Endeavors® is aiming to expand this program in order to provide these critical services to more families in San Antonio experiencing homelessness.  

If you’d like to donate to this incredible cause, you can find ways to help by clicking here!  

Endeavors® is passionate about serving vulnerable people in crisis, improving their quality of life in innovative, personal ways. Click here to connect with someone from our team and learn more about the many ways Endeavors® can help!  

How does Endeavors® help?

Endeavors® is passionate about serving vulnerable people in crisis, improving their quality of life in innovative, personal ways. Click here to connect with someone from our team and learn more about the many ways Endeavors® can help!  

In addition to providing housing for homeless women and children, we also provide Disaster Case Management and Emergency Services.  Additionally, we help connect military families to clinics, provide emergency staffing services, create long-term recovery plans, and far more.

To learn more, check out endeavors.org or donate today.

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